Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The planetary chauvinists

with 10 comments

In a profile in the latest issue of Wired, the journalist Steven Levy speaks at length with Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, about his dream of sending humans permanently into space. Levy was offered a rare glimpse into the operations of the Amazon founder’s spaceflight company, Blue Origin, but it came with one condition: “I had to promise that, before I interviewed [Bezos] about his long-term plans, I would watch a newly unearthed 1975 PBS program.” He continues:

So one afternoon, I opened my laptop and clicked on the link Bezos had sent me. Suddenly I was thrust back into the predigital world, where viewers had more fingers than channels and remote shopping hadn’t advanced past the Sears catalog. In lo-res monochrome, a host in suit and tie interviews the writer Isaac Asimov and physicist Gerard O’Neill, wearing a cool, wide-lapeled blazer and white turtleneck. To the amusement of the host, O’Neill describes a future where some ninety percent of humans live in space stations in distant orbits of the blue planet. For most of us, Earth would be our homeland but not our home. We’d use it for R&R, visiting it as we would a national park. Then we’d return to the cosmos, where humanity would be thriving like never before. Asimov, agreeing entirely, called resistance to the concept “planetary chauvinism.”

The discussion, which was conducted by Harold Hayes, was evidently lost for years before being dug up in a storage locker by the Space Studies Institute, the organization that O’Neill founded in the late seventies. You can view the entire program here, and it’s well worth watching. At one point, Asimov, whom Hayes describes as “our favorite jack of all sciences,” alludes briefly to my favorite science fiction concept, the gravity gauge: “Well once you land on the moon, you know the moon is a lot easier to get away from than the earth is. The earth has a gravity six times as strong as that of the moon at the surface.” (Asimov must have known all of this without having to think twice, but I’d like to believe that he was also reminded of it by The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.) And in response to the question of whether he had ever written about space colonies in his own fiction, Asimov gives his “legendary” response:

Nobody did, really, because we’ve all been planet chauvinists. We’ve all believed people should live on the surface of a planet, of a world. I’ve had colonies on the moon—so have a hundred other science fiction writers. The closest I came to a manufactured world in free space was to suggest that we go out to the asteroid belt and hollow out the asteroids, and make ships out of them [in the novelette “The Martian Way”]. It never occurred to me to bring the material from the asteroids in towards the earth, where conditions are pleasanter, and build the worlds there.

Of course, it isn’t entirely accurate that science fiction writers had “all” been planet chauvinists—Heinlein had explored similar concepts in such stories as “Waldo” and “Delilah and the Space Rigger,” and I’m sure there are other examples. (Asimov had even discussed the idea ten years earlier in the essay “There’s No Place Like Spome,” which he later described as “an anticipation, in a fumbling sort of way, of Gerard O’Neill’s concept of space settlements.”) And while there’s no doubt that O’Neill’s notion of a permanent settlement in space was genuinely revolutionary, there’s also a sense in which Asimov was the last writer you’d expect to come up with it. Asimov was a notorious acrophobe and claustrophile who hated flying and suffered a panic attack on the roller coaster at Coney Island. When he was younger, he loved enclosed spaces, like the kitchen at the back of his father’s candy store, and he daydreamed about running a newsstand on the subway, where he could put up the shutters and just read magazines. Years later, he refused to go out onto the balcony of his apartment, which overlooked Central Park, because of his fear of heights, and he was always happiest while typing away in his office. And his personal preferences were visible in the stories that he wrote. The theme of an enclosed or underground city appears in such stories as The Caves of Steel, while The Naked Sun is basically a novel about agoraphobia. In his interview with Hayes, Asimov speculates that space colonies will attract people looking for an escape from earth: “Once you do realize that you have a kind of life there which represents a security and a pleasantness that you no longer have on earth, the difficulty will be not in getting people to go but in making them line up in orderly fashion.” But he never would have gone there voluntarily.

Yet this is a revealing point in itself. Unlike Heinlein, who dreamed of buying a commercial ticket to the moon, Asimov never wanted to go into space. He just wanted to write about it, and he was better—or at least more successful—at this than just about anybody else. (In his memoirs, Asimov recalls taping the show with O’Neill on January 7, 1975, adding that he was “a little restless” because he was worried about being late for dinner with Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey. After he was done, he hailed a cab. On the road, as they were making the usual small talk, the driver revealed that he had once wanted to be a writer. Asimov, who hadn’t mentioned his name, told him consolingly that no one could make a living as writer anyway. The driver responded: “Isaac Asimov does.”) And the comparison with Bezos is an enlightening one. Bezos obviously built his career on books, and he was a voracious reader of science fiction in his youth, as Levy notes: “[Bezos’s] grandfather—a former top Defense Department official—introduced him to the extensive collection of science fiction at the town library. He devoured the books, gravitating especially to Robert Heinlein and other classic writers who explored the cosmos in their tales.” With his unimaginable wealth, Bezos is in a position remarkably close to that of the protagonist in such stories, with the ability to “painlessly siphon off a billion dollars every year to fund his boyhood dream.” But the ideas that he has the money to put into practice were originated by writers and other thinkers whose minds went in unusual directions precisely because they didn’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, to do it personally. Vast wealth can generate a chauvinism of its own, and the really innovative ideas tend to come from unexpected places. This was true of Asimov, as well as O’Neill, whose work was affiliated in fascinating ways with the world of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog. I’ll have more to say about O’Neill—and Bezos—tomorrow.

10 Responses

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  1. Four stories in (Asimov’s Mysteries) feature the character of Wendell Urth, who is a leading extra-terrologist (an expert on alien worlds and life originating on them). Urth is eccentric in that he has a phobia of all mechanical forms of transport (an exaggeration of Asimov’s own aversion to flying).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asimov's_Mysteries

    A character talking to Urth was surprised that, unlike many people and despite his interest in space, Urth never visited the moon

    dellstories

    October 16, 2018 at 6:01 pm

  2. @dellstories: And he was based on Norbert Wiener!

    nevalalee

    October 16, 2018 at 6:06 pm

  3. ‘There’s no doubt that O’Neill’s notion of a permanent settlement in space was genuinely revolutionary.’

    While the mechanics of O’Neill’s counter-rotating cylinders, etc., were new, the idea of non-planetary space habitats appears first in the Anglophone world in J.D. Bernal’s 1929 text ‘The World, the Flesh & the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul.’ (Not to be confused with the Harry Belafonte film, nor the French movie and book that preceded that!)

    Bernal was a British — actually, Irish — renaissance physicist/mathematician most notable for pioneering X-ray crystallography in molecular biology and for his role in ops planning/research during WWII, especially in the preparation for Operation Overlord (you’re a fan of Powell & Pressburger, so think of ‘The Small Back Room’ and imagine Bernal at the apex of a lot of bigger and smaller establishments like the one in that film).

    But he also published this one book that’s directly or indirectly influenced SF writers as varied as Olaf Stapledon, Bruce Sterling and the cyberpunks, Arthur C. Clarke and his descendants, and, I guess, even Robert Heinlein (the ‘generation starship’ trope appears first in Bernal’s book).

    http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/bernal_j_d

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Desmond_Bernal

    Bernal was a committed Marxist so you can find the text of ‘The World etc.’ here —

    https://www.marxists.org/archive/bernal/works/1920s/soul/index.htm

    Cyberpunk SF in the 1980s — the strain of it concerned with the ideas of posthumans and posthumanity and non-planetary living — derive from Bernal, via Bruce Sterling’s reading ‘The World, etc’ which then results in a lot of the ideas in Sterling’s Mech-Shaper stories and the novel ‘Schismatrix’. If you haven’t read the Sterling stuff, I guarantee you’ve read modern SF influenced by it. And if you can’t be bothered to read Bernal himself, here’s Sterling going on about him to give you an idea —

    https://www.wired.com/beyond-the-beyond/2018/08/j-d-bernal-waxing-posthuman/

    Mark Pontin

    October 16, 2018 at 6:40 pm

  4. @Mark Pontin: Thanks, Mark—this is very helpful!

    nevalalee

    October 16, 2018 at 8:03 pm

  5. “… January 6, 1998, NASA’s Lunar Prospector blasted off for the south pole of the moon, looking for ice, and carrying an ounce of Shoemaker’s ashes. According to a memorial website set-up by Porco, the ashes were carried in a polycarbonate capsule provided by Celestis. It had been wrapped in a piece of brass foil, laser-etched with his name and dates over an image of the Hale-Bopp Comet; an image of Arizona’s Meteor Crater, where he had trained the Apollo astronauts; and a quote from…”

    Ben Turpin

    October 16, 2018 at 11:04 pm

  6. @ Alec.

    I sometimes think I’m a pedantic know-it-all sounding off on your blog unasked — one more idiot on the Internet. You can always tell me to eff off.

    My excuse, I suppose, is that with ASTOUNDING you’ve successfully reinvented yourself — after being a thriller writer — as The Man, in terms of being this current generation’s historian and interpreter of the classic American SF tradition. Big congratulations on the long review in NATURE, which I just saw —

    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06943-8?utm_source=briefing-dy&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=briefing&utm_content=20181012

    You’ve arrived, I suspect. Sure, given the massive amount of time and work you put into the book, the financial recompense may not justify feeling that sanguine about the future yet. But with the cultural capital you’ll probably establish, and with your smarts and diligence, there’s a good chance that the next project you take on may put you over the top financially.

    I look forward to seeing what that project will be.

    Mark Pontin

    October 17, 2018 at 2:50 am

  7. @Mark Pontin: Trust me—that’s not the case! You’ve been a welcome presence on this blog for years, and I hope you’ll stick around for a long time.

    nevalalee

    October 18, 2018 at 3:55 pm

  8. Mark Pontin:

    Fear not. If Alec were averse to corresponding with pedantic know-it-alls (knows-it-all?), he would not have undertaken to publish a book about prominent figures in the science fiction community. He knew the job was dangerous when he took it.

    Bill Higgins, PK-I-A

    Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey

    October 19, 2018 at 11:36 am

  9. There is always a more cynical motive for why the ruling elite might want to send most of the masses off into space. That is to eliminate the surplus population, specifically masses of feeders and takers. That would leave the earth as the playground for those who remained behind.

    In Douglas Adams scenario, it is those holding positions as middlemen in the economy who are eliminated by this method. And one should note that much, maybe most, of the population in Western countries would fit this demographic. The middlemen are those who are judged as not doing real or necessary work, what David Graeber calls bullshit jobs. But that is the fastest growing part of the economy. That has created the dilemma of what do we do when there is so much surplus labor because of mechanization. We’ve long had a growing permanent underclass. Eventually, even the middle class built on middleman jobs might become less relevant as so many of these jobs are repetitive work easily replaced by computers and robots.

    Bullshit jobs, so the argument goes, is just a way of keeping the population occupied so that they don’t get in trouble, such as demanding democracy or starting revolutions. An easier solution might be to simply get rid of the useless eaters, especially when we have already surpassed the planetary population load. There are many ways to eliminate large numbers of people, the most common being eugenics and genocide. Isolating populations in ghettos, refugee camps, and internment camps (or the sanctuary districts from the Star Trek universe) doesn’t really solve the problem. As long as the people remain around, no matter how oppressive is social control, those people will tend to begin causing problems in one way or another. The only long term solution is population decline, which if it doesn’t happen through catastrophe could be made to happen by other means.

    Sending the masses off to space colonies could be deemed a more humane solution. Or at least a good way to rationalize the otherwise inhumane. Even if not entirely eliminated as a potential problem (those sent away could always return in a less-than-happy state of mind), new bullshit jobs could be created to keep them preoccupied such as toiling in asteroid mining or whatever, dangerous work that would ensure a high death rate while they’re at it.

    http://www.geoffwilkins.net/fragments/Adams.htm

    “All those dead telephone sanitizers and account executives, you know, down in the hold.” […]

    “Oh they’re not dead,” he said, “Good Lord no, no they’re frozen. They’re going to be revived.” […]

    “You mean you’ve got a hold full of frozen hairdressers?” he said.

    “Oh yes,” said the Captain, “Millions of them. Hairdressers, tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives, management consultants, you name them. We’re going to colonize another planet.” […]

    “Yes, so anyway,” he resumed, “the idea was that into the first ship, the ‘A’ ship, would go all the brilliant leaders, the scientists, the great artists, you know, all the achievers; and into the third, or ‘C’ ship, would go all the people who did the actual work, who made things and did things, and then into the `B’ ship – that’s us – would go everyone else, the middlemen you see. […] And we were sent off first,” he concluded, and hummed a little bathing tune. […]

    “And they made sure they sent you lot off first did they?” inquired Arthur.

    “Oh yes,” said the Captain, “well everyone said, very nicely I thought, that it was very important for morale to feel that they would be arriving on a planet where they could be sure of a good haircut and where the phones were clean.”

    “Oh yes,” agreed Ford, “I can see that would be very important. And the other ships, er … they followed on after you did they?” […]

    “Ah. Well it’s funny you should say that,” he said and allowed himself a slight frown at Ford Prefect, “because curiously enough we haven’t heard a peep out of them since we left five years ago … but they must be behind us somewhere.”

    Benjamin David Steele

    October 20, 2018 at 9:48 am

  10. @Bill Higgins: No kidding!

    nevalalee

    October 20, 2018 at 9:51 am


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